Top Climber is rigged and ready for me to climb to masthead.
Shortly after I bought my 1968 Ericson 30 in the fall of 2005, I sailed it single-handed to Isthmus Harbor at Catalina Island. It was a great trip until the end. I arrived with 12-15 knots out of the west, rounded up into the wind on the autopilot and went to the mast to drop the main sail. It wouldn't budge.
Eventually, after what was probably 15 minutes of swinging the external halyard back and forth interrupted repeatedly to maneuver the boat to avoid other boats and the shore, the sail suddenly dropped.
After I was on a mooring, I examined the external sail track with binoculars and saw that it was a little bent high on the mast. And one or two screws looked like they might be a little loose.
Later, I had a rigger climb the mast and check it out for me. He replaced the top section of track, but wasn't sure that it had been the cause of the problem. It wasn't, as I found later when the sail jammed at the top again.
The next suggestion was that one of the screws mounting the VHF antenna to the masthead must be too long and was catching in the halyard. The top of the halyard, about a foot down did show some abrasion. The recommended solution was unstepping the mast, removing the masthead fitting and installing shorter screws. It was the kind of job that could easily cost $4,000 because it made sense to replace the rigging, the masthead sheaves, repair any corrosion damage to the mast and have it refinished while it was off the boat.
The rigging was old but sound and I had figured out that the sail would fall okay if I gave the halyard a sharp yank before releasing it. There were other ways I needed to spend that $4,000 first.
When we arrived in Ensenada last month, however, after abandoning the Newport to Ensenada race and motoring in under main alone, the sail once again jammed in place and it was very difficult to get down.
Several weeks later I decided to go up the mast myself, remove the offending screw and take care of the problem. Assuming that the stainless steel screw had welded itself to the aluminum masthead casting, I bought a set of carbide-tipped drill bits and even practiced drilling out a stainless screw at home.
I've owned an ATN Top Climber for about five years and previously had made a trip up to the spreaders of the Ericson's mast. This time I went to the top and pulled up a heavy bucket of tools, bits, and a drill after me.
The problem screw was slotted, not philips head, which made the task of drilling it out a lot more difficult. In fact, I had only practiced on a phillips head screw. Also, it was apparent that the position of that screw was not in line with the path of the halyard over the front and rear sheaves.
Furthermore, I could see that the abrasion zone on the main halyard -- from which I was hanging -- began just where the halyard entered the forward side of the masthead fitting. Feeling with my finger, I found that a portion of the casting, which separated the main and jib halyard sheaves, was rough where the halyard touched it. It looked as if part of it may have broken off sometime, leaving a jagged edge.
My tool bucket didn't contain a small file, which I would need to clean up the casting. And I needed to be hanging from a spinnaker halyard so that I could move the main halyard away from the area that needed smoothing.
I lowered myself, which is a slow process with a Top Climber, and awhile later climbed up again, hanging from the spinnaker halyard, and smoothed the casting.
I already had a replacement halyard, a 3/8ths-inch Sampson XLS-Extra line, which is smoother, more slippery and has less than half the stretch of the lower-cost Sta-Set X rope that had been the main halyard since I before I bought the boat.
I had ordered the new line from West Marine several months earlier, but had not installed it pending my repair of the abrasion problem. Now I sewed the new line to the old and hauled up the mast, across the sheaves and down the front. As soon as the new line crossed the sheaves, I could feel how much easier it pulled.
There was a different problem, however. The new line was too short! The day I had bought it, West did not have enough line in stock at its Long Beach store. So I ordered it, and received it about a week later, coiled, secured with a wire tie, and packed in a box. It remained coiled and I cut the wire tie just before I sewed it to the old halyard that day.
I had ordered 80 feet of line. The one I received measured 60 feet. I took it to the store, without the receipt, which was in my file at home. Mine is a fairly familiar face at West Marine in Long Beach and a new line of proper length was quickly cut and soon installed.
The difference is remarkable. Partly that's because I've smoothed the casting and partly it's because the new line has a smoother structure. But probably the biggest difference is that the new line is 3/8ths instead of 7/16th like the old one. A telephoto picture shows that the new line does not touch the center divider of the masthead casting, unlike the old line.
New main halyard, left, doesn't rub against the center flange in masthead casting.
The Top Climber has advantages and disadvantages as a means for climbing the mast. It is based on the mountain climbing technique of using sliding jam cleats to ascend a rope. One advantage is that no assistance is required. I did my work alone and without anyone else on the boat or monitoring my progress. It also is safe. It might be possible to temporarily get into an uncomfortably awkward position. But I can't imagine a scenario in which I could fall.
There are several disadvantages. You must have a separate line available to climb, either 7/16ths or 1/2 inch, which is fastened to a halyard and hauled to the top of the mast. That line has to be threaded through the two ascender cleats of the unit, which is easier with 7/16ths line. The company recommends that the climbing line then be led to a sturdy snatch block attached to the base of a lifeline stanchion and from there to a jib winch and cleat where it can be tightened as much as possible to take the stretch out of the line and the halyard.
Top Climber requires its own climbing line, which is hoisted to masthead by a halyard. It runs through a snatch block at lifeline stanchion base, then aft to winch and cleat.
You aren't supposed to lead the climbing line to the base of the mast. The climbing technique requires that you be away from the mast. Your weight will cause the line to sag, no matter how tight you winch it, and that sag will allow you to easily reach the mast by the time you get to spreader height. From there up, it is not a problem being next to the mast.
Climbing line is tensioned on winch and secured to cleat.
The Top Climber consists of two ascender cleats. One is connected to the foot loops. The other is attached to the hard seat that forms the bosun's chair. In fact, that portion with its webbing back straps, thigh loops and hoist strap could be used as a traditional bosun's chair and hoisted aloft on a halyard if you had the crew aboard to do the work.
The principal is very simple. Stand in the foot loops and your weight locks the bottom ascender to the climbing line. At the same time, push up the upper ascender, which moves easily with your weight off of the bosun's chair. Then sit in the chair, raise your feet and push up the lower ascender at the same time. Then repeat. It does take arm and shoulder strength to pull yourself up at the same time you stand because you are hanging at an angle off the climbing line.
I can climb in six-inch increments, with frequent rest stops to enjoy the view. The company's on-line video shows it being done at about a foot at a time.
To descend, the process is reversed. When an ascender cleat is unweighted, the line-locking lever at the top can be pivoted up to release the climbing line and the ascender can be pushed down. It takes some care not to lower it too much, which is where you could end up in an awkward position. If you hold the lever up too long, the ascender can fall of its own weight. But all you have to do is let go of the ascender and it stops instantly.
The climber comes in a sturdy storage bag, which fastens to the harness to become a deep tool bag. I store the Top Climber and my climbing line in a cockpit locker, comforted by the knowledge that I could get up my mast alone at sea if I had to.